The pandemic has been a boon to the social training platform Strava, which grew by about two million new athletes each month in 2020. Nearly twice as many cyclists shared their workouts between April and June of 2020 compared to the year before. And if bicycle manufacturers were able to keep up with the demand for new bikes, Strava would likely have grown even faster.
There are two types of social media. The likes of Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are ephemeral streams of hot takes and memes, often forgotten as quickly as they grab our attention. A second type of social platform encourages its users to attach their digital fingerprints to things from real life. Think of how GoodReads and Yelp attach your reviews to books and restaurants; similarly, Strava allows its users to do something similar for roads and trails. Somewhere near you is a segment of road that Strava transformed into a monthly competition among cyclists and runners.
Segments on Strava are simply a start point and end point on any stretch of road or trail; for example, this segment up O’Shaughnessy and Twin Peaks, one of San Francisco’s classic climbs with stunning views of downtown framed by the bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.
But for the cyclist, a segment is more than a start point and end point. Often we’ve ridden the same segment dozens or even hundreds of times. We know every bump, turn, and pothole in the road. Most importantly, we know our PR — our personal record — and how much effort it will take to beat it.
The segment above begins at the last stoplight before an uninterrupted ascent up O’Shaughnessy Avenue, perched above a wooded canyon to the right. As I pass through the green light, a bike computer the size of a fig newton beeps and flashes “Ready? Go!” Like so much in life, the key to cycling is to maintain a steady breath without becoming overwhelmed. Soon, I am approaching the midway point of the segment, a nearly flat stretch that is fully exposed to the warm winter sun. My heart rate is falling, my legs begin to feel stronger.
I’m on track to beat my PR, but I’ll need to pedal just as hard up the second half of the segment, the famed climb from Portola Boulevard up to Twin Peaks. It begins with a steep incline over pockmarked pavement before easing into freshly paved, hairpin turns with expansive views of San Bruno Mountain to the south. At each turn, I know the necessary pace to beat my PR.
My heart is like a hummingbird, my legs are swollen with fatigue, and then finally I come to the top of the climb, greeted with the best views of one of the world’s most scenic cities. I managed to beat my fastest time by 12 seconds. I am filled with a calm contentment as my heart rate and breathing slowed.
Cycling is the only aspect of my life that I am certain I’m getting better at, an antidote to the otherwise pervasive feeling of imposter syndrome. Am I becoming a better manager? A better writer? A better husband or friend? I have no idea. There is no way for me to know if I am improving, merely repeating the same patterns, or actually regressing as I grow older. But with cycling, the evidence is right in front of me; the harder I train, the faster I get, the more confidence I have. I wish I could say the same about my work or my writing; I know that I have good days and bad days, but I never really know if I’m growing or improving.
For a certain type of goal-oriented, analytical mind, Strava segments are an improbably powerful incentive, which is what makes them dangerous. On June 6, 2010, Kim Flint, a 41-year-old electrical engineer, rode his bike down a popular road for cyclists and dog walkers in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. Flint wrote on Twitter later in the day: “49.3 mph, on a bike. How I find religion on Sunday morning.” Flint’s time descending South Park Drive was the fastest ever recorded on Strava. But 10 days later another local cyclist, a software engineer at Strava as it happens, bested Flint’s time by four seconds. Flint attempted to retake the fastest time the next week. Instead, he drifted onto the wrong side of the road, ran into an oncoming car, and died.
Tech writer Kashmir Hill questioned whether Flint’s death was the first “quantified self fatality,” a case study of how the data, gamification, and social prestige of online media push us past our better judgment. Cyclists often complain about Strava’s downsides even as they are unable to resist its addictive appeal. The constant feedback of performance data and social comparison encourages users to constantly strive harder without taking pleasure in the more enjoyable parts of the sport: enjoying the passing scenery, slowing down to chat with a fellow cyclist, stopping for a pastry, and aimlessly exploring new routes without purpose or destination.
We think of dopamine as a chemical reward, but in fact dopamine is released in anticipation of achievement and recognition, whether they are attained or not. The anticipation of seemingly small incentives — the like button on Facebook, the follower count on Twitter, the top ten list for a Strava segment — can trigger our dopamine addiction so that we are constantly seeking, never satisfied.
I am reminded of the ultimate gamification platform, capitalism, and the power of money to bestow prestige and inspire striving. Just as many cyclists obsess over Strava segments, the American Dreamer faces the quantified self of capitalism: our net worth, credit score, and investment portfolio. This omnipresent feedback about our fitness, finances, and online popularity is unprecedented and, it seems to me, under-studied. How are these digital metrics so powerful in shaping our behavior? And what are the downsides to the constant pursuit of excellence?
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that our economic standard of living would increase by four to eight times over the next century; and as a result, the average work week would fall to 15 hours as we spend more of our time on leisure and less of our time working.
Keynes accurately predicted the rising economic standard of living over the past century, but he was wrong that we would choose to work less as we earn more. In fact, studies of time diaries show that higher wage earners spend more time working than lower wage workers. Why do we choose to work more hours as we earn more money? Why did Americans forfeit 768 million days of paid time off in 2018? How is it that even leisure activities like cycling have frequently become goal-oriented efforts of optimal striving instead of rejuvenating breaks of relaxation? The legal scholar (and now Biden White House official) Tim Wu described the disappearance of amateur hobbyists as a “sign of civilization in decline:”
Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it. Hobbies, let me remind you, are supposed to be something different from work. But alien values like “the pursuit of excellence” have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur. The population of our country now seems divided between the semipro hobbyists (some as devoted as Olympic athletes) and those who retreat into the passive, screeny leisure that is the signature of our technological moment.
Strava segments have taught me that, with moderation, there is genuine pleasure to be found in “the pursuit of excellence” and the satisfaction of simply getting better at something. During the plague of malaise and uncertainty, segments on Strava offered me a reason for aspiration, a small reward for effort. On the other hand, constant striving toward quantified metrics distract us from cycling’s finest rewards: the unparalleled vistas at the top of a ridge, the slow conversations that unfold over pleasantly paced miles, the scenic backcountry roads discovered while meandering aimlessly. Similarly, our credit score is a useful reminder to keep a low credit card balance, but shouldn’t dissuade us from booking that needed vacation. Our net worth may help us plan for retirement, but is just as likely to distract us from appreciating the small moments that make for a meaningful life.
COVID has prompted us to reconsider our priorities and how we use our time and energy. Exhausted by the demands and busyness of modern life, we seek a better balance between the anticipation of striving and the reward of enjoying. I haven’t given up on Strava and I still enjoy the occasional sweaty effort to beat my best time up a hill. But increasingly, I leave the bike computer at home and pedal forth with neither destination nor goal.